I took a road trip through my home state of California around this time last year. I had spent two years abroad and I wanted to take my time traveling through the state and tackle some of the hidden gems I hadn’t seen previously. I spent 2 months traveling up the lengthy state, from San Diego through to Oregon. I barely scratched the surface.
When I’m traveling internationally and people tell me they think California is overrated, I always ask them where they went. Generally it consists of a trip to Los Angeles and Disneyland, sometimes a foray into the Bay Area or Santa Barbara, but hardly ever more than 2-3 cities, and very little time in the expansive nature that surrounds those metropolises. And to that I reply, do you know how big California is? It’s huge!
So, to the naysayers or perhaps the people who want to discover more of this beautiful state (even the ones who grew up here!), I recommend doing a road trip around some of the national parks I mention below. California is blessed with having some of the best versatility in terms of terrain and natural beauty. It’s time to see it properly!
I never knew a desert could be beautiful until I went to Joshua Tree for the first time last year. I was mesmerized by the Joshua trees, funky desert shrubbery, and eclectic campsites we found there. One night we would be enjoying a hot spring night in the desert with a stunning sunset, the next we would move up to a new campsite higher in elevation and be freezing but have the most incredible view of the stars.
There’s a reason why there are so many songs written about Joshua Tree, or albums – I’m looking at you U2. It’s a magical place and straddles two of the most beautiful deserts you will find – the Mojave and Colorado. If you’re into rock climbing, decently mellow hikes, impossible rock formations, and desert landscapes, this park is for you.
Hmm..Death Valley, it’s not really a name that makes you want to pack your bags and run with open arms to discover it. However, Death Valley is an underrated national park in the state of California. Located pretty far east in the state, it’s not usually a park that’s on the way to anywhere, and the extreme temperatures in the summer can keep people away.
You may be surprised to hear that if you come in the winter or early spring, you’ll find a vibrant, colorful, and beautiful place to explore in the middle of the Californian desert. In mid-July, there’s the insane 135-mile race in the valley called the Badwater Ultramarathon, you know, if pain and intense heat is your thing. But otherwise, I’d recommend pretty much any other season than the middle of summer for a visit.
At whatever time of the year you go, make sure to take a moment to find Zabriskie Point and watch the sunrise or sunset from there. Take a deep breath of the desert air and enjoy the natural beauty before you. And you can always go experience the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere at Badwater Basin, -282 feet below sea level.
My first camping experience was in King’s Canyon national park, and I still remember it fondly. It was the first time I had truly experienced nature like that and I was soon hooked on tent life, campfire stories, and s’mores from the ripe age of 8.
If you want to find big trees, King’s Canyon and the neighboring Sequoia park are the place! In fact, The Giant Forest in Sequoia national park has 5 out of the 10 largest trees in the WORLD. These trees are over 3,500 years old and it is one of the most incredible experiences to witness for yourself. There is also a ton of wildlife to see and over 1,200 specific of plants to find. Are you impressed yet?
I appreciate King’s Canyon & Sequoia for their remoteness and lack of tourists, compared to places like Yosemite and even Joshua Tree sometimes. A lot of the campsites you actually have to hike into and it only adds to the adventure.
The big daddy of national parks in California and one that almost all of you should have at least heard of at some point in your life, Yosemite is seen as the place to go in nature for a reason – it’s majestic…and huge.
The landscape was created from massive glaciers over 3 million years ago, so it has had a lot of time to find itself and impress you with its natural beauty. Located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite is also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only about a 3.5 hour drive from the Bay Area.
Because of how tall the granite walls are throughout the park, the only way to see Yosemite properly is through hiking, and lots of it. I know there are some people who attempt to see national parks from the comfort of their car, and although I would never recommend that for any park, I would especially dissuade you from doing that at Yosemite. The abundance of wildlife alone should make you want to get out and simply take it all in.
Yosemite is also the prefect place for rafting, fishing, and rock climbing depending on what type of outdoor activities you enjoy. And it’s the park where you can hike Half Dome, potentially one of the most epic and breath-taking ( I mean that literally as well as figuratively) all-day hikes you can tackle in California. Since Yosemite is such a popular park, you’ll have to get a wilderness permit in order to camp overnight no matter what season it is, and it’s very much recommended to reserve ahead of time as they go quickly.
Point Reyes National Seashore
I had to include Point Reyes National Seashore on this list since it’s such a great city escape from the Bay Area. If you’re already planning on stopping by San Francisco during your travels in California, Point Reyes is just a short 37 mile drive north of the city and the perfect little seaside getaway.
This is another park I had the chance to see last year, and it was a wonderful day of rugged ocean views, wildflowers, and a scenic lighthouse. It felt like we had reached the edge of the world.
The one downside with Point Reyes is that there are no official campsites within the park, so you may have to set up other lodging options, rough it with backcountry camping, or plan to just spend a day exploring the colorful seashore. From December to mid-March you may even be able to catch the 20,000 grey whales that migrate through the peninsula from Alaska to Mexico.
What are your favorite national parks in California? How about the USA as a whole?
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. Follow her on The Atlas Heart for more great stories and photos of a worldwide adventurer.